Topography may mitigate drought effects on vegetation along a hillslope gradient
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Topography may mitigate drought effects on vegetation along a hillslope gradient through redistribution of soil moisture. We examined the interaction of topography, climate, soil moisture, and transpiration in a low-elevation, mixed-hardwood forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The effects of meteorological variation (wet and dry years) and topographic position (upslope and cove) were tested on daily soil moisture amplitude and recession and plot and species-specific transpiration. Trees in the cove plot were 17% taller and had 45% greater sapwood area than those in the upslope plot. Lower rates of soil moisture recession following rainfall events were observed at the cove plot compared to the upper plot. Greater daily soil moisture amplitude and plot transpiration, even in dry years, suggest that lower slope positions may have been buffered against moderate drought. We also observed similar transpiration in Quercus spp., Carya spp., and Liriodendron tulipifera in the cove plot between dry and wet years. Plot transpiration was reduced by 51% in the dry year in the upslope plot only, and transpiration by individual species in the plot reflected this pattern, suggesting water stress in dry years may be exacerbated by topography. With drought predicted to increase for these systems, the different drought responses of species, in addition to topographic effects, may lead to complex shifts in species composition.